There seems to be a high-definition version of everything these days, from sunglasses to voice calls and now even E Ink displays. Kobo's new Aura HD features the highest-resolution screen on an e-reader, featuring a 6.8-inch, 1440 x 1080 E Ink display. However, that crystal-clear screen will cost you. At $169, the Kobo Aura HD is $50 more than its similarly sized competition. The Amazon Kindle Paperwhite and Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight cost just $119. Find out if the display--and the company's gamified reading features--are worth the extra dough.
What immediately grabbed our attention about the Kobo Aura HD is its sculpted back. Inspired by the ridges created when you handle an open hard-back book, the look just seemed odd at first, but after reading for a while, we appreciated the angular backside.
The 6.9 x 5.1 x 0.5 inch Aura HD is slightly larger than the Amazon Kindle Paperwhite (6.7 x 4.6 x 0.4 inches) and the Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight (6.5 x 5 x 0.5 inches). Weighing in at 8.5 ounces, the Aura HD is also heavier than its competition; the Kindle Paperwhite weighs just 7.8 ounces and the Nook Simple Touch is a mere 7 ounces. Still, the Kobo is less than the 10.9-ounce Apple iPad mini, and didn't cause any arm strain while reading.
Our review unit came in Ivory, but shoppers can choose from a slick Espresso or Onyx exterior. The only real pop of color is the red power slider on the top edge. Flipping the slider powers the device on or off, and it can set to sleep or wake. A small battery LED light and a button for the ComfortLight backlight sit to the left.
The bottom edge of the Aura HD houses the microUSB port and microSD Card slot. In addition 4GB of built-in storage, the device can support up to 32GB via a microSD card--double what you get from the Kindle Paperwhite or the Nook Simple Touch.
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Kobo calls the Aura HD's display technology ClarityScreen+. The company claims this is the only "tablet-grade screen on an E Ink e-reader" and its 6.8-inch, 1440 x 1080-pixel display does boast an impressive 265 dpi. The Nook Simple Touch, by comparison, offers 800 x 600 pixels for a dpi of 167, while the Kindle Paperwhite has 212 dpi with a resolution of 1024 x 768.
In our side-by-side comparisons with the Nook and Kindle, the Kobo offered the clearest, brightest and crispest reading experience. With backlights on all three devices turned to 100 percent, the Kobo Aura HD notched an impressively bright 326 lux. The Kindle Paperwhite came in at 208 lux, while the Nook was 102 lux. While you don't need super-high brightness all the time, we appreciated the range of possibilities. We also found the Aura's backlight to be the most even across all three devices.
Like the Nook Simple Touch, the Aura HD's touch screen is controlled by infrared, not capacitive or resistive technologies. While it was accurate, we did note a second or two of flickering before executing commands.
Kobo claims the ClarityScreen+ is "the most durable E Ink e-reader screen." According to the company, the Aura HD withstood an independent test where a key was dropped on the display from 3 feet, up to 2.4 times better than the competition. However, Kobo would not let us test those claims.
Overall, we found the Aura HD's interface easy to navigate. From the graphically appealing home screen you can see recently read content, book recommendations, reading stats and any other recently opened apps. Always presenting the percentage of a book you've read and how many hours you have to go caused us some anxiety, but we could see how this data could inspire some to read faster and buy more books. Using the text bar at the top of the page you can search the bookstore or your library.
Along the top left edge of the Aura HD's interface is the Home button. You can access the button from any other screen by tapping the bottom/middle of the display. On the top right is the battery icon and the menu button. Tapping the menu button opens a drop-down menu that shows the backlight and wireless status, battery percentage, last date content was synced with the cloud, a help icon and a settings menu. Tapping Settings opens a new screen for all sorts of apps and presets.
From Settings, you can sign in to your Kobo and Facebook accounts. However, to update your profile, billing address or credit card details you must go to www.kobo.com. You can tweak your date, time and language; change default power settings; as well as manage your wireless connections. Lefties will especially appreciate the ability to customize what part of the screen you touch to turn back or forward in a book. The Extras section is a catch-all of sorts for non-reading stuff, including games, a Web browser and the Sketch Pad app.
On the bottom of the Home screen, you can access your full Kobo library, separated by content type. Here you'll also find links to the Kobo Bookstore and Reading Life, which shows you more detailed reading stats, as well as the gamified badges you've earned so far.
While reading a book, the bottom left corner shows the percentage you've read, with a pop-up available for more reading stats. On the right side, you can access a plethora of other settings, including font size and a slider to fast-forward through a book. There are two menu buttons here, too. One button resembles an open book and allows you to jump to a table of contents, open the dictionary or search the book. The other button, a more familiar three bars, can sync your place, share a book on Facebook, mark a book as finished and open other reading settings.
The 1440 x 1080-pixel high-resolution display of the Kobo Aura HD is noticeably sharper than its competition with the backlight on or off. The words of Gillian Flynn's "Gone Girl" were much more defined and crisp than the same book on the Nook Simple Touch or Kindle Paperwhite. And we much preferred reading on the Kobo than on our Apple iPad mini's Kindle app.
By putting a 1-GHz processor under the hood, Kobo claims the Aura HD's page turns are 20 percent faster than the competition. In side-by-side comparisons with the Nook and Kindle, we noticed a small difference in the speed of the Aura HD, but it's so small we doubt most readers will notice.
By default, the Aura HD only resets the full screen every six page turns, and that's when you notice a full second or so of inverted text flashing on the screen. That is the longest interval available, and it matches the refresh rates of the competition.
We appreciated the preloaded Merriam-Webster's Collegiate dictionary. To get definitions, simply tap and hold a word to get a pop-up definition.
The Aura HD offers 10 font styles in 24 sizes. Plus, you can tweak font sharpness and weight, so you can find the settings that are easiest on your eyes. We also appreciated the brightness slider for adjusting the backlight, which made reading in bed simple and enjoyable.
Just as with Amazon's Kindle and Barnes & Noble's Nook, you can sync your Kobo content with apps for Mac, Windows, iOS and Android smartphones and tablets.
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For the rare moments when you need to type, a gray keyboard appears with small square keys. We found this keyboard to be quite laggy, and the odd placement of the dedicated @ and ! keys threw us off. We did like the dedicated .com button, however.
Wireless & Web Surfing
While it lacks a 3G/4G broadband option, the 802.11b/g/n radio in the Aura HD lets you connect to a Wi-Fi network. We connected to our home and office networks, but there was no easy way to tell if the connection had been established. Once we entered the necessary passwords and tapped Connect, the device paused for a second and then returned us to the password screen. After repeated attempts to manually enter our password, we went and tried the browser only to find we were, in fact, connected.
Downloading Gore Vidal's "Burr" took about 20 seconds over our office Wi-Fi, and downloading "Deadlocked" by Charlaine Harris took about the same time.
To access the Experimental Web browser, you must first tap on the top left of the screen and go to the Settings Menu. From there, tap Extras and you'll find the browser at the bottom of the screen. Google.com is the default home page, and at the bottom sits a slider for zooming in on the page.
Using the browser, we loaded NYTimes.com in 7 seconds, Laptopmag.com in 9 seconds and ESPN.com in 10 seconds over our office Wi-Fi network. All of these times are respectable.
Kobo boasts a library of more than 3 million e-books, comics, newspapers and magazines. By comparison, Amazon's e-book store offers 1.5 million books while Barnes & Noble's book store boasts 2.5 million. Kobo's store is mostly made of e-books, as we counted only 55 newspapers and 17 magazines in the store.
As of this review, Kobo's store offered all 10 of the current e-book fiction bestsellers. The prices ranged from 99 cents to $15.99. However, while half of those prices are identical across Kobo, Amazon and Barnes & Noble, the Kobo versions cost more for the other five books. For example, the "Don't Go" by Lisa Scottoline cost $12.99 on Kobo, versus $11.04 on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Weirdly, you can't buy periodicals from the Aura HD itself. You must go to www.kobo.com/newsstand from your desktop. Also, Kobo doesn't let you buy a single issue of any periodical, such as Inc magazine or the Wall Street Journal; you can only get a free two-week subscription followed by a regular subscription. Prices range from $1.65 per month for The American Scholar to $19.99 for the New York Times.
We were wholly unimpressed with the comics and graphic novel selection on the Kobo Aura HD. The company has a relationship with Dark Horse Comics and Top Cow but they are not available on the Aura HD; instead, these titles are optimized for viewing on the Kobo Arc tablet.
Kobo offers personalized e-book recommendations on your home screen, based on what you've bought and read in the past. You can improve those picks by telling Kobo if you've already read a book or if you're not interested, similar to Netflix's recommendation engine.
Sadly, Kobo doesn't offer an option to share e-books from your library with friends, as you can with Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Nor does the Aura HD have anything like Amazon's Prime Lending Library, which allows you to read books for free on your Kindle Paperwhite if you're a Prime member.
Kobo includes a handful of games on the Aura HD, including chess, word scramble, sudoku and six types of solitaire. Sudoku worked well, but the timed word scramble was severely hampered by the screen's lag time. You must be slow and deliberate, which is frustrating when a clock is counting down. Playing solitaire on an E Ink screen is also not ideal, as you don't get to see the red-and-black contrast of suits.
The Aura HD supports EPUB and Adobe DRM so you can borrow books from your public library and load books you've downloaded from sites such as Gutenberg.org. This e-reader also supports TXT, HTML, XHTML and RTF files so you can add your work documents to read on the go. You can also load and view image files, including JPEG, GIF, PNG and TIFF types.
Sharing and Notes
Unique to Kobo is the Reading Life feature, which tracks your reading habits using a wide range of data. The Aura HD knows how long you've read in a sitting, how far you are into all the books you own, the number of times you've turned pages, the average time you spend on a page and how long you will need to read at that pace to finish the book.
You can also earn Foursquare-style badges in Reading Life. We earned one badge for connecting our Kobo account to Facebook account, and another after reading for two hours straight. The Aura HD also lets you share your awards via your Facebook timeline, as well as share the name of the book you're reading with your friends, with a link to its Kobo page. However, you can't share passages from that book.
The Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight connects to more accounts, including Twitter and Google+. And you can share passages from within the text, or you can share just the book. The Amazon Kindle Paperwhite also connects to Twitter, in addition to Facebook, and allows you to share actual passages from books. But neither offers the bragging rights of telling the world that you've earned a badge for reading five times during the cocktail hours of 6 to 8 p.m., if that sort of thing appeals to you.
The Aura HD enables users to highlight text, take notes, share notes via Facebook, or even draw free-form notes using the Sketchpad and save them as PNG files. We had to be especially deliberate and slow while trying to highlight passages to make notes; otherwise, the device thought we were turning a page.
Kobo Aura HD's battery lasts up to two months with the light on or off, which matches the claim Amazon makes of the Kindle Paperwhite's endurance. Kobo's rating is based on approximately 30 minutes of reading per day and one page turn per minute. By comparison, the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight claims one month with Wi-Fi off and GlowLight on. During our three days of periodical reading with the backlight on and off, and Wi-Fi on and off, we noted a 20 percent decrease in battery life.
There is no doubt that the Kobo Aura HD offers the highest resolution display with the brightest backlight option available. We found it quite pleasurable to read for extended periods with this E Ink e-reader. But hardware is only half the equation. For $50 less, the Amazon Kindle Paperwhite offers less expensive books, more social options and the ability to lend your e-books to friends and family.
You can also pick up an original Kindle Fire HD tablet for $10 less than this Kobo, providing access to a much wider array of content, apps and games in full color. However, the Fire HD isn't optimized for reading. If screen clarity is key for your eyes and you prefer more of a single-purpose device, the Aura HD will satisfy.